Tallinn, Estonia – Saturday 27th May to Tuesday 6th June
Sitting down to write this post, it feels like we arrived in Tallinn weeks ago. I first heard of the Estonian capital when my parents, sister and brother-in-law visited some years ago. Since then, it’s always been on my ‘list’, but for no other reason than that it’s there. In some ways that’s really much of what travel is: to see for the sake of seeing. It is possible to read a book, or people watch, or enjoy a coffee anywhere, but the desire to do those things somewhere new, just to see what it’s like, is a great yearning that many travellers share.
So, finally, many years later I get to follow in the footsteps of my family before, and not only see something new, but share in a connection forged of common experience. For this I am forever grateful.
Tallinn Old Town Square mid-performance:
We arrived in Tallinn on the tails of a wonderful week in rural southern Estonia. Hannah’s first priority was getting a hair cut, and then we settled in for the evening at our Airbnb (£52.60 per night). We were holding off touristing, because on Sunday Hannah’s mum, Liz, came to visit!
Amazingly, Tallinn Airport is only a ten minute drive from the city (learn a lesson please, London); so after a quick trip to collect Liz, we were straight out the door and off to the Old Town to explore. Tallinn’s Old Town is definitely one to visit. It is reminiscent of a provincial French town, but in the midst of a bustling city. It is also very well set up for tourists. On the walls of scores of buildings are little plaques describing their architectural significance; and while large enough to explore, the Old Town is not so large to get totally lost in. Each street seems to have its own identity, so after a short wander the place takes on a comforting familiarity.
We stopped for an al fresco lunch, enjoying the sunshine, and were startled by shouting in the street and numerous police sirens. People were turning in their seats all down the street to see what was causing the disturbance, but we were none the wiser. Phil went to investigate and returned five minutes later with the news that there was a film being shot around the corner. A great relief – we had been wondering why we’d seen so many police everywhere!
Phil ‘enjoys’ dried elk:
On Monday we decided to escape the city and headed east to the Lahemaa National Park; Estonia’s largest, and the first area to be designated a national park of the former Soviet Union. Our destination was Viru Bogs, a 3000 year old area of mire and bog, on which a 3.5km boardwalk and viewing tower have been built; preserving the wilderness, while making the bog accessible at the same time. After a short walk through the towering spruce forest we spotted the boardwalk… two planks laid on sleepers suspended above the mire! This made for some interesting balancing acts when we passed a tour group coming the other way! Watching the group trudge past in silence we thanked our stars we’d hired a car and not come on an organised tour.
The bogs felt as old as they were. An amazing prehistoric landscape of peat and pooled water; damselfly and the occasional butterfly our only companions, other than the odd tourist. Tower ascended and back to the car, we headed north to the coast.
After Estonia declared independence in 1991 there was a rapid withdrawal of Soviet military, leaving nothing but the crumbling infrastructure behind. This is what we were hunting as we turned down an unmarked dirt road upon reaching the Northern tip of the Juminda peninsula. After a few seconds Hannah spotted derelict buildings in the woods and we knew we were on the right track. Moments later the forests cleared and we were treated to an expansive view of the Baltic, and our prize: the Hara Submarine Base.
Happy urban explorers at Hara Submarine Base:
We parked up at the end of the 600m concrete pier and strolled out to enjoy a picnic in the most unique setting we could imagine. The Hara bay is beautiful; a tranquil island between two isolated peninsulas in the Baltic, into which the old naval structures extend, and an undisturbed breeding ground for numerous seabirds. Instead of marring the landscape, the haunting graffiti-covered relics somehow enhanced it. Ghosts from a troubled past, giving optimism to the future.
On Tuesday we decided to explore west of the capital. Our first stop was the Turisalu cliffs. 30m above the Baltic sea, where after a short walk we met Hank: a dutchman in the middle of a two month tour from the Balkans to the Baltics and back to Holland, almost along the route we’ve been travelling for the past two months! His enthusiasm for our trip, and the places we’ve yet to visit was encouraging.
A nuclear missile silo from the missile’s point of view:
Then it was on to the 70m wide Keila Waterfall, surrounded by a quaint village and lovely parkland. A perfect spot for a picnic. Sated, we sought out another abandoned Soviet relic: the Turisalu Nuclear Missile Base. Coming from the UK, it is almost unbelievable to be able to explore these old structures. The three of us climbing unhindered around crumbling hangars and bunkers. In one hardened shelter Hannah discovered old newspapers from 1968 which had been used as wallpaper, with pictures of British bobbies at a protest, and an eerie photo of war-era Hanoi.
As a birthday treat that night we took Liz to Lounge 24, at the top of the Radisson Blu hotel, for a panoramic dinner above the city. Treated to free prosecco on arrival, and a free birthday dessert, we were delighted by our meal in the sky.
Happy Birthday Liz!
On Monday we set out across the city to find the Seaplane Harbour which now houses the Estonian Maritime Museum. This incredible re-purposing of an abandoned military relic is well worth a visit. The whole structure has been completely refurbished; it’s filled with amazing interactive exhibits, including a navy submarine from the 1930’s which we got to explore.
The remarkable Estonian Maritime Museum:
There is so much more to say about Tallinn, but I’ll hold back the finer details and give the highlights. We had a fun medieval-themed meal at Olde Hansa; watched bands and orchestras at the Tallinn Old Town Festival; had tea on the Old Town wall; drank under the Library in an old bomb shelter; used a secret code to get through the unmarked door of a speakeasy, and discovered Tallinn’s Shoreditch.
The great thing about this city is how accessible it all feels, and in close proximity. With only a little digging (and a little fortuitousness) we were able to do much more than just scratch the surface here, and feel like we started to get under its skin.
Next week, we cross the water to the Finnish capital, Helsinki! Until then…
Hannah and Phil x